When to ask your parents for the keys

The belligerent, foul-mouthed man stood less than a foot away from me, jabbing his finger into the air to make his point.

“That old man shouldn’t be on the road,” he said. “He turned right into me.” My 81-year-old father stood nearby, embarrassed and shaken.

On a 1-to-10 scale, the accident hardly registered: My dad’s car barely brushed the other vehicle, with no discernible damage to either car or occupant.

But the bully facing me at that moment acted like he wanted blood. I thought to myself, could he be right? Had my dad become a hazard to himself and others? Was it time to take away the keys?


It’s a question adult children ask themselves with dread. Losing the ability to drive impacts a person’s dignity and independence, especially in California, where transportation options can be limited. But we all can cite an example of older drivers who caused horrific accidents.

More than 3 million California drivers are 65 or older, some of them over the century mark. Statistically, they’re considered safe drivers; teenagers are far more accident prone, according to state DMV records. But older drivers are more likely to be killed or critically injured when involved in an accident.

Short of taking the keys away, we can do many things to lower the risk and help our parents become better drivers. And when they reach the point where they can no longer drive safely, we can ease the transition from driver to passenger.

The first step? Have the conversation long before your parent’s driving becomes a problem, says Jane Mahakian, an Orange County clinical psychologist whose company, Aging Matters, specializes in geriatric issues.


“I encourage my boomer clients to establish an open dialogue with their parents,” she says, citing statistics that show only 25% of older adults find the conversation uncomfortable.

Some of her suggestions for opening the discussion:

* “People just don’t drive as safely out there as they did before . . .”

* “When did your mother (or father) stop driving?”


* “What effect does your medication have on your driving?”

Candid, occasional conversations stressing your concern about your parent’s safety should follow, experts say. Often the discussions reveal problems that can be solved easily, perhaps by taking a refresher driving course. Physical problems can be overcome. If a driver can no longer see over the steering wheel, a pillow can boost them; if they’re too inflexible to look over their shoulder when changing lanes, physical therapy might help. If they feel uncomfortable with the speed of freeway traffic, they can limit their driving to surface streets.

Retired lawyer Julian Ertz, 90, used to get nervous when he drove on the freeway from his home in south Orange County to Westwood to visit a friend. “The motorcycles would cut in and out of traffic and people drove crazily,” he says.

Now he takes Pacific Coast Highway instead. “It takes longer, but I’m happier.”


By imposing his own restrictions, Ertz is emulating others. Some give up driving at night, others only take well-known routes (to the market and church, for instance), and others avoid dangerous intersections or rush-hour traffic.

If Dad or Mom won’t limit or stop driving, enlist the support of a doctor, Mahakian says.

“Older people will listen to their doctors even if they won’t listen to you,” she says.

Before you make the push, however, find transportation alternatives -- family, friends, local programs -- that allow your parents to remain engaged in their activities. Don’t cut them off.


If you’ve done your homework and they still refuse to move to the passenger seat, it might be time to alert the DMV.

Charley Fenner gets calls all the time from children who are worried about a parent’s driving ability. Fenner, 71, heads the DMV’s Senior Ombudsmen program in Sacramento.

“They tell us Mom or Dad is getting a little shaky and say that maybe we should take a look at them,” he says.

If the situation seems to warrant it, the driver is required to take vision, written and on-the-road driving tests.


“If they pass, they’re in the clear,” Fenner says. If not, their licenses can be revoked.

The DMV offers videos, brochures and extensive online senior assistance at Locally, call the L.A. senior ombudsman, Ann Love, at (310) 412-6103. Other good information can be found at and

California drivers are required to pass written and vision tests (but not on-the-road tests) when renewing licenses that expire after their 70th birthdays and at five-year intervals thereafter.

Ertz, who just received his license for another five years, said he was relieved when he passed. “If I couldn’t have driven anymore, I would have felt lost,” he says. “Now I’m good until I’m 95, if I live that long.”


To calm my fears about my dad’s driving, I embarked on weekly ride-alongs with him after his accident. Dad was fine for years, finally giving up the keys in his mid-80s. The belligerent accident victim? After shouting at me for several minutes, he tipped his hand. He wanted $250, he said. I played dumb. He finally went away empty-handed.

SIDEBAR: Top ten warning signs that it is time to take the keys away McClure’s column on caring for and staying connected with aging parents runs in Home monthly. Comments: